Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has fired Officer Brian Hunzeker after an internal affairs investigation found that the former police union president violated bureau directives last March, when he leaked a report that mistakenly identified Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty as the suspect in a hit-and-run crash.
Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell notified Hunzeker that he had been terminated in a Feb. 28 letter, obtained by WW through a public records request. It says that Hunzeker violated two bureau directives: dissemination of information, and discrimination, harassment and retaliation. City Hall sources confirm to WW that Hunzeker received the letter today.
“While you did not agree that your actions were retaliatory,” the letter says, “based upon the information and statements contained in the record, I find that your actions violated the retaliation policy because of your admission in the investigation that you were motivated in part because of Commissioner Hardesty’s comments about the police during the 2020 protests.”
WW has also obtained an email that Wheeler sent to Lovell on Monday afternoon. In it, Wheeler argued that suspension was an insufficient level of discipline.
“You and I agree about this matter in all points, except that in balance, I think that the seriousness of the conduct warrants termination rather than a 12-week suspension,” Wheeler wrote. “With all respect to you as the Chief, I cannot support a suspension in this case due to the harm caused by his conduct and the egregiousness of his actions. I therefore must direct you to change the outcome from a lengthy suspension to termination.”
That email appears to be a response to the Feb. 25 determination letter written by Lovell in which he recommended a 12-week suspension without pay rather than termination.
“I support and have a great deal of respect for Chief Lovell and his work,” Wheeler said in a Tuesday press release. “We agreed on the gravity of these policy violations—but we disagreed on the level of discipline to impose.”
Wheeler also apologized to Hardesty on behalf of the Police Bureau. “As the investigation determined, Officer Hunzeker’s actions also amounted to retaliation against a democratically elected member of the City Council due to her criticisms of the police bureau,” he said. “Officer Hunzeker’s actions harmed Commissioner Hardesty and harmed the community’s trust in the Police Bureau.”
Related: For Nearly 80 Years, the Portland Police Association Has Wielded Power in a Town That Doesn’t Like Cops. That Power Is Now Under Siege.
The mayor’s decision brings a conclusion to a yearlong investigation into the actions of a high-ranking union official that damaged the reputation of the first Black woman elected to Portland City Council. The firing triggered the public release of the most substantive information to date about that internal affairs investigation. The impending election also heightens the stakes: Wheeler fired Hunzeker 11 weeks before Hardesty faces a contested race for reelection.
An attorney for Hardesty declined comment on Tuesday evening.
The Police Bureau’s inquiry probed the genesis of the leak. The internal affairs unit concluded that Hunzeker sent a photo of the computer-aided dispatch record in which the initial complaint was logged to a reporter at The Oregonian.
The investigators also found than Hunzeker sent the photo using a PPA-issued phone, and that he accessed the CAD record with a computer owned by PPB. According to the Feb. 28 letter signed by Wheeler and Lovell, an internal affairs investigator requested a query of everyone who had accessed the CAD record of the hit-and-run call.
“The query logs provided by the Records Division showed you queried and viewed the CAD call on March 4, 2021 but would not have had a business reason to do so,” the letter says.
An attorney for Hunzeker did not respond immediately to WW’s request for comment.
In a Feb. 24 letter, Hunzeker explained his actions and said he regrets “the decisions I made on March 4, 2021.”
“I did not make this phone call with any form of malice toward Commissioner Hardesty,” Hunzeker wrote.
Like many Portland Police Bureau officers who’ve been fired before have done, Hunzeker is entitled to appeal the decision to an arbitrator, who could overturn the firing and order him reinstated. It is not clear at this time whether Hunzeker intends to pursue arbitration.
The termination follows an investigation by PPB’s internal affairs unit that began nearly a year ago, on March 5, 2021.
Investigators probed which city employee or employees leaked information about a faulty tip that the bureau had received two days earlier. On March 3, a Portland woman reported to police that she had been rear-ended hours earlier by a driver who fled the scene. The woman told police that she was “starstruck” because she recognized the driver as Hardesty, the first Black woman to serve on the Portland City Council.
By the end of day on March 4, police announced they had ruled Hardesty out as a suspect, and that the complainant had mistaken the actual driver—also a Black woman—for the commissioner. But by then, multiple right-wing outlets, as well as The Oregonian, had reported the allegation.
Then, on March 16, less than two weeks after the inciting incident, the Portland Police Association announced Hunzeker had resigned as police union president due to a “serious, isolated mistake” related to the leak. The PPA declined to elaborate on what exactly spurred the resignation.
Related: Someone in Law Enforcement Leaked False Information About Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to Her Adversaries
Hunzeker’s tenure as union head was short-lived. He had been elected to the role months earlier in the fall of 2020 in anticipation of longtime president Daryl Turner’s retirement. In the months that ensued after Hunzeker’s resignation, and in the absence of a president, Turner served as executive director of the PPA.
In November, the union elected Hunzeker’s successor: PPB Sgt. Aaron Schmautz. He issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon after news of Hunzeker’s firing broke, describing his predecessor as having a decorated career and no prior history of discipline. Schmautz indicated that the PPA may have plans to seek out arbitration, and he also disputed the city’s finding of retaliation.
“He has owned his mistake and held himself accountable by stepping down as union president,” Schmautz said. “The city’s own investigation does not support the allegation that Officer Hunzeker retaliated against Commissioner Hardesty; he was not motivated by malice or bad intent. In firing Officer Hunzeker, the city has inappropriately turned accountability into punitive sanctions. That is a step too far; one that is unsupported by facts, reason, and objectivity.”
Related: Five Infamous Incidents That Didn’t Cost Portland Police Officers Their Jobs
In an Oct. 26 letter addressed to Hardesty, internal affairs investigator Scott Konczal summarized the findings of North Precinct Commander Kristina Jones, who sustained two of the three allegations against Hunzeker: that he disseminated confidential information to the media, and that he did so in retaliation for Hardesty’s criticisms of the Police Bureau—namely the incorrect claim she made during a Marie Claire magazine interview in the summer of 2020 alleging that PPB officers were setting fires at protests. (Hardesty later recanted and apologized.)
“Officer Hunzeker acknowledged sharing information about an ongoing criminal investigation to a member of the media in a phone conversation he initiated,” Jones said, “then later by providing a screen shot of the CAD call to the reporter, which he admitted was a violation of this directive.”
Jones determined that the third allegation against Hunzeker—that he leaked the information because of Hardesty’s race—was not sustained.
That letter also named two other PPB officers who were involved in the leak: Kerri Ottoman and Ken Le.
The investigators determined that Ottoman leaked the allegation to Gabe Johnson of the Coalition to Save Portland, a right-wing political action committee that broadcasted the allegation during a Facebook Livestream on the morning of March 4.
They also found that Le gave it to a friend at the Bureau of Emergency Communications, which fields 911 calls for the city. As WW first reported in August, BOEC disciplined three employees for sharing the allegation with their colleagues.
Related: “Juicy Juicy”: Portland’s Emergency Dispatch Bureau Suspended Employees Who Shared False Hit-and-Run Allegation
Meanwhile, Hunzeker is also a defendant in a $5 million civil lawsuit filed by Hardesty in December. Hardesty is seeking $3 million from the PPA, and $1 million each from Hunzeker and Ottoman.
Hunzeker has been on administrative leave since late May. WW’s reporting later revealed that he was earning overtime pay while on administrative leave and pending the internal affairs investigation.
It is unclear what impact Hunzeker’s firing might have on the civil case, if any. It also remains unclear if Hunzeker plans to appeal his firing to an arbitrator. Statistically speaking, that is a promising avenue for an officer that’s been fired. In a June 2020 interview, Turner told WW that during his decade-long tenure as president, just four officers had gone to arbitration after being fired for misconduct. All four were reinstated.